Talking About War - On the Subway
by Mina Hamilton
April 18, 2003
What's astounding is how few Americans talk about Iraq. Except at demonstrations or with friends whose political viewpoints are known, there's a blanket of silence shrouding the topic. Here's an exception:
It's Saturday, early evening. On the New York City subway. I'm reading in the New York Times about US troops entering Baghdad.
This, the F line, has an unusual configuration of seats. They offer some privacy. Some of the seats face towards the aisle. Others are doubles that face either forwards or backwards. Thus there's a corner where, if you get a window seat, you can sit reading, feeling, if not cozy, at least unjostled by the crowd. I'm ensconced in just such a seat with my backpack occupying the seat next to me.
A voice with a slight accent (was it Chinese?) asks, "Is this seat taken?"
As I nod yes and transfer my backpack from the seat to my lap, I flash a glance at the stranger sitting down besides me. I register petite, probably Chinese, though I'm not sure. She could be Japanese or Korean. I can't guess her age. Seventeen? Twenty-two? All of these thoughts zip through my mind. Then, I'm back reading about humvees and dead Iraqis.
In a gentle, almost inaudible, voice she asks, "How's the war going?"
This is unusual. Since the invasion began, it's the first time a stranger has initiated a conversation about THE WAR.
I turn towards the young woman by my side. I wonder how to answer. For me, the war is an atrocity, one ghastly slaughter after another. But I want to leave open the possibility of an exchange. Guardedly, I say, "Depends upon your point of view."
She laughs, "I know what you mean." Then, with a slight gesture of dismissal, "I don't care about the war."
I try not to look shocked. I know this is the moment that I could say something non-committal and turn back to reading my newspaper. Instead, I say quietly and as neutrally as possible, "I do care about the war."
She must have heard the emotion in my voice. She adds, "I don't like the killing." Clearly we both are aware of the delicacy of the moment. We glance sideways at each other, talk slowly, carefully weigh our words.
Me: "You see if it were India attacking Pakistan, I would also care, but since I pay taxes to the US government, I care more."
Absolutely non-defensively, she says, "I pay taxes too." Ah, I think watch those assumptions. She's older than I thought. She adds, "There was another way. There should have been another way. More diplomacy."
I realize now that I had misunderstood her when she said she didn't care about the war. She meant I don't like it. I concur, "Yes, there was a chance for diplomacy to work."
She: "I mean this is …barbaric."
Me: "Yes, like Neanderthals bashing each other on the head with stones."
The stones appear to be too much for her. She says, "It's better not to think about it."
We're quiet for a moment, sitting side by side, hurtling along underground. We're delicately struggling to cross an enormous divide. There's the divide between utterly different cultures, the divide of complete strangers, the divide of age. Definitely she's young enough to be my daughter.
And it's happening on a crowded New York subway. I'm oblivious to the stations that come and go, the opening and closing of doors, the press of crowds. It seems very important to keep alive the thin thread of the conversation.
She continues, "If you think about it, you either get hysteria or depressed."
I wonder about that word, 'hysteria.' It's so old-fashioned, so 19th century. Straight out of a Jane Austen novel. What does she mean?
"It's hard," I murmur.
"I had a nightmare," she says. "I woke up in the night, terrified. I thought the roof was falling…that a bomb had hit the building and I walked around the apartment looking to see what it was." Laughing softly, turning awkwardly towards me, "It was a dream. It was hysteria."
Touched by this confession, I, quietly, "Hmmm, that sounds scary." Now I feel the moment is too intimate. I pull back; say nothing for a few moments.
She makes a little half-gesture towards the part of the subway car we're facing, "There's no security, now."
Recently, I've had several conversations with friends where we've shared how we now look around at the people in the subway car and think, What would it be like to die with these people, to spend our last moments with this particular set of strangers?
It's a thought that comes from the place of knowing New York City is an el primo target; a subway could be a very nasty place to be. You pick out someone by whose side you would prefer to be - in an emergency.
Perhaps, that African-American woman who's sitting catty-corner from her daughter, chatting and giggling? They're arm-wrestling. (The mother's capacious pocketbook is the table on which their elbows rest.) Perhaps, the elderly man across the aisle intently reading sheet music?
I say to my new acquaintance, "I know."
She, "It's better not to think about it. You know, live your life. It doesn't really matter what happens."
"Ahh," I say laughing, "You're a philosopher."
She laughs too, protests, "Oh no."
Me, looking off into the sea of knees and feet and backs of strangers, "You know in most spiritual traditions the point is too reach the place you've reached. Enjoy this moment and forget about everything else."
She smiles. We sit silently, rocketing through the dark subway tunnel.
She reaches out again, "There's SARS." She raises her arm and makes a little gesture of descent. "You know it's as if the world is going down." Then, as an afterthought, "I'm lucky I'm not fully Chinese. I'm Chinese, Japanese and Indian."
Ah, so I wasn't being a racist when I couldn't tell her ethnic background. "Do you think the Chinese are more susceptible?"
"Oh yes, they die much faster…"
"They do? I mean I knew SARS started in China, but I hadn't heard..."
"Yes, whenever I eat I'm very careful. I look around me to see who is close." She touches her finger to her nose. "The breath. . ."
I'm sure she's misinformed on this point and I'm appalled at her fear.
Then I remember a similar thought has crossed my mind in recent days. I have a good friend, a young Chinese woman, who does organizing against sweatshops. She's with Chinese textile workers every day. I've wondered, Is she more at risk for catching this dread disease? Should I refrain from kissing her on the cheek, as I always do, when I see her each week at yoga? Then, I decided no, absolutely not. I'm not going to live my life hemmed-in by such fear. Of course, I will kiss her.
For the first time in about twenty minutes I notice a subway stop. It's the one before my stop. "I think the next stop is mine."
This delicate moment, this contact of several cultures, two strangers, two women is about to break. This oddly vulnerable and intimate connection with a person I will never see again is about to pass.
I'm putting on my wool hat, stuffing the Times into my backpack, zipping the zipper. I don't want to leave. How am I to end this conversation? "I've enjoyed talking with you…" As soon as I utter the words, they sound trite. Then, almost silly, playfully, "Let's be sure to enjoy our lives, this minute, every minute…"
As I stand up to go, she says, "Have a good weekend."
My back towards her, I stand by the subway doors waiting for them to open. I feel awkward and slightly sad. It's odd to have our encounter end with so little ceremony. I wonder if she's looking at my back or already reading the book I had noticed clasped in her hand. (I had tried to see the title, but couldn't.)
I'm thinking; if I turn back to have one more moment of visual contact and if she were looking away I would feel disappointed. I could step off the train and not look back, not risk the disappointment.
The doors open. I turn back towards the seat where she's sitting. She's looking right at me. I send her a big smile. She smiles back. We wave at each other.
I step off the subway.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.